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September 02, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 02, 2005

On the set On the set (September 02, 2005)

Paly grad seeks the right light, the perfect props and the financing while making his independent film

by Terry Tang

Director Jonathan Yi, his New York-based film crew and numerous pieces of lighting equipment are scattered in a backyard on Byron Street in Palo Alto, filming a crucial bedroom scene.

While it's actually 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, a giant mirror is changing the angle of the sunlight to make it look like actor Aldous Davidson is waking up at 6 p.m. after working into the wee hours.

After several takes, Yi decides they are ready to shoot the scene again, but this time facing a smaller window. A few guys begin moving gear into the bathroom to capture the desired angle.

"This really illustrates to you how something that only takes two minutes on screen could take hours to shoot," said assistant director Michael Haertlein.

Yi's senior thesis project, "Shift" is a dramatic and humorous take on an episode from his own life. The story follows Alex, a Korean-American college boy, as he muddles through a thankless summer job sorting mail during a graveyard shift at a high-finance investment company in San Francisco. Over the course of the job, the middle-class, Bay-Area-bred student gets an education about another way of life as he interacts with his older, immigrant co-workers.

The NYU student and Palo Alto High School graduate hopes to screen the movie at the First Run Festival that will take place at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in March of next year. Eventually, he would like to show it in the Bay Area.

With the final cut anticipated to be between 30 and 45 minutes, "Shift" is short in length but definitely not in labor. Yi is weathering the creative, financial and marketing strife of translating his own screenplay into a cinematic piece.

"Everything about this movie is hard. My last movie, I just made because I knew I could get the location and write it around the location. It was easy and it was affordable," Yi said during a lunch break from shooting in Palo Alto on Aug. 24. "I just said if I was going to make another one, I was going to do whatever I want and I don't care how hard it is."

Yi's previous movie, "I'm Sammy Hagar," was a much more fast-paced shoot -- two New York shooting locations in three days -- but logistically easier. He got along well with the people in charge at both spots: Arlene's Grocery, a bar/live-music venue; and the American Institute of Guitar, a music school.

It was while Yi was raising money for "I'm Sammy Hagar" two years ago that the story of "Shift" began taking shape. After getting rejected for various summer jobs, including a dishwasher, he snagged a temporary position handling mail at Charles Schwab. From 10 or 11 p.m. until 8 a.m., Yi toiled alongside six other employees -- all men, most of whom were first-generation immigrants.

Initially, he said, they saw him as a "privileged kid" saving up for frivolous career aspirations. He understood their opinion; while the mail room was a pit stop for him, it was one of two or even three jobs his co-workers held down while caring for families. Meanwhile, Yi marveled at their boundless capacity to work and stay upbeat.

"You would always think that people would be so bitter about everything. But they were incredibly positive for the most part -- always smiling, always cracking jokes, working really hard at several jobs," Yi said. "They were happy to be here in America. They were happy to start a new life here. Basically, everything that nobody cares about, they cared about."

Some of Yi's friends, who he said came from even more privileged backgrounds, defined success as wealth. Furthermore, they believed that people stuck in dead-end jobs simply didn't work hard enough.

This viewpoint is represented in the film by the character of Melanie, who is a compilation of three different girlfriends from Yi's own life. Like Yi, Alex begins to feel trapped between two worlds as he questions his ex's values.

"I ended up...being upset that my friends just assumed that if you have a bad job, you're a bad person or you just don't work hard," Yi said. "And I think that's a concept that Palo Alto kind of even makes you think (about); it's like if you don't get perfect SATs, or don't go to a good Ivy League school. This wasn't my idea at all before that, but a lot of people I hung out with think that."

From the start, Yi knew shooting in the Bay Area was crucial to the story. Back in New York, the crew was able to secure a soundstage for one interior scene. But places that didn't have high location fees were hard to come by. Even a professional location scout he hired left the production, saying the search for a site that would allow a student film was too difficult.

However, Yi got a break during a visit to Palo Alto. A friend urged him to check out the home of Rod and Alison McNall, whose daughter, Julia Johari, attended Palo Alto High with him. Her bedroom, which faces the backyard and was once a maid's quarters, was big enough to accommodate a camera, microphone and a few crewmen. It would make an ideal space to show Alex arriving home, too exhausted after work to deal with anything.

After hearing an outline of the shooting process and the insurance coverage, Rod McNall said the family had no reservations about permitting a 15-person entourage and a Budget moving truck filled with equipment to take over their home for a day. Also, he was glad to help Yi while learning what goes on behind the scenes of a movie.

"You could see all the crew knew their business. They're very professional," McNall said. "I think the most impressive part is the amount of waiting and the tremendous attention to detail, especially to the light aspect."

The film's $74,000 budget covered airfare for all the cast and crew members who weren't already visiting family in Palo Alto. After arriving a week beforehand, they retrieved all their rented film accoutrements from a company in Oakland. Besides working in Palo Alto, they also shot on location in Atherton. An acquaintance of Yi's parents granted the crew access to her estate for two outdoor scenes.

Whether it's getting sites for free, buying props from Walgreens and Goodwill or putting up the crew in friends' homes, saving money in even the littlest way doesn't hurt. In May, the project was also chosen for the prestigious SDX900/Panasonic Digital Filmmaker's Grant, worth $17,000.

But what's also been gratifying is receiving contributions from people who genuinely like the movie's story, Yi said.

"There's generous donations from people, especially people with whom this story really resonates, people who came here to America and worked really hard," he said.

Yi and his cinema cohorts have raised a considerable share of the forecast $74,000, but unforeseen costs -- such as rising gasoline prices -- have pushed the project about $15,000 over budget, he said. So raising money is still a priority.

Because he received a digital filmmaker's grant, Yi is shooting the movie on video instead of on film. It's his first digital project, and he was apprehensive about it at first.

"I'm a film guy," he said, but added that the digital aesthetic has been very successful. "The inherent coldness of the digital image, along with our muted color schemes, was something that would work perfectly for this story. And it frees me up, too, as a director conducting an ensemble cast. There's no reload wait time or worries about multiple takes costing more money."

As a teenager, Yi never imagined pursuing filmmaking, let alone sitting in the director's chair. He credits his sophomore year transfer to Paly for setting him on the path.

Yi said he found himself in a more intense learning environment than he'd experienced at Carlmont High School in Belmont, with students doggedly studying. Their passion was inspiring, and he ended up devoting a lot of time to his video production class, led by Ron Williamson. By Yi's senior year, Williamson convinced him to apply to film school.

Yi is still getting used to acting as the spokesperson for "Shift." His film background is rooted in cinematography. So, leading the charge in promotion for the movie through fundraising and blogging still feels a bit uncomfortable.

"It's like people walking around saying, 'I'm awesome,'" he said. "If you're comfortable and think you're already good, then what's the point?"

For more information on "Shift," go to

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